The Covenanters were thus named because in a series of bands or covenants they bound themselves to maintain the Presbyterian doctrine and polity as the sole religion of their country. The first "godly band" is dated December 1557; but more important is the covenant of 1581, drawn up by John Craig in consequence of the strenuous efforts which the Roman Catholics were making to regain their hold upon Scotland, and called the King's Confession or National Covenant. Based upon the Confession of Faith of 1560, this document denounced the pope and the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church in no measured terms. It was adopted by the General Assembly, signed by King James VI. and his household, and enjoined on persons of all ranks and classes; and was again subscribed in 1590 and 1596.
In 1637 Scotland was in a state of turmoil. Charles I and Archbishop Laud had just met with a reverse in their efforts to impose the English liturgy upon the Scots; and fearing further measures on the part of the king, it occurred to Archibald Johnston, Lord Warriston, to revive the National Covenant of 1581.
Additional matter intended to suit the document to the special circumstances of the time was added, and the covenant was adopted and signed by a large gathering in Greyfriars churchyard, Edinburgh, on the 28th of February 1638, after which copies were sent throughout the country for additional signatures. The subscribers engaged by oath to maintain religion in the state in which it existed in 1580, and to reject all innovations introduced since that time, while professed expressions of loyalty to the king were added. The General Assembly of 1638 was composed of ardent Covenanters, and in 1640 the covenant was adopted by the Scots parliament, and its subscription was required from all citizens. Before this date the Covenanters were usually referred to as Supplicants, but from about this time the former designation began to prevail.
A further development took place in 1643. The leaders of the English parliament, worsted in the Civil War, implored the aid of the Scots, which was promised on condition that the Scottish system of church government was adopted in England. After some haggling a document called the Solemn League and Covenant was drawn up. This was practically a treaty between England and Scotland for the preservation of the reformed religion in Scotland, the reformation of religion in England and Ireland "according to the word of God and the example of the best reformed churches," and the extirpation of popery and prelacy. It was subscribed by many in both kingdoms and also in Ireland, and was approved by the English parliament, and with some slight modifications by the Westminster Assembly of Divines. Charles I refused to accept it when he surrendered himself to the Scots in 1646, but he made important concessions in this direction in the "Engagement" made with the Scots in December 1647. Charles II before landing in Scotland in June 1650 declared by a solemn oath his approbation of both covenants, and this was renewed on the occasion of his coronation at Scone in the following January.
From 1638 to 1651 the Covenanters were the dominant party in Scotland, directing her policy both at home and abroad. Their power, however, which had been seriously weakened by Cromwell's victory at Dunbar in September 1651, was practically destroyed when Charles II. was restored nine years later. Firmly seated upon the throne Charles renounced the covenants, which in 1662 were declared unlawful oaths, and were to be abjured by all persons holding public offices. Episcopacy was restored, the court of high commission was revived, and ministers who refused to recognize the authority of the bishops were expelled from their livings.
Gathering around them many of the Covenanters who clung tenaciously to their standards of faith, these ministers began to preach in the fields, and a period of persecution marked by savage hatred and great brutality began. Further oppressive measures were directed against the Covenanters, who took up arms about 1665, and the struggle soon assumed the proportions of a rebellion. The forces of the crown under John Graham of Claverhouse and others were sent against them, and although the insurgents gained isolated successes, in general they were worsted and were treated with great barbarity. They maintained, however, their cherished covenants with a zeal which persecution only intensified; in 1680 the more extreme members of the party signed a document known as the "Sanquhar Declaration," and were afterwards called Cameronians from the name of their leader, Richard Cameron. They renounced their allegiance to King James and were greatly disappointed when their standards found no place in the religious settlement of 1689, continuing to hold the belief that the covenants should be made obligatory upon the entire nation. The Covenanters had a martyrology of their own, and the halo of romance has been cast around their exploits and their sufferings. Their story, however, especially during the time of their political predominance, is part of the general history of Scotland.
(Adapted from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica)